CES 2009: Flock Hands-On

Rednecks rejoice: Alien abductors are now only interested in the stuffed animals of this charming puzzle game from Capcom.

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LAS VEGAS--Although conventional wisdom says that extraterrestrials are interested in humans mostly for purposes of abduction and often invasive experimentation, that doesn't seem to be the case in the upcoming Flock for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Instead, the UFO-piloting aliens in the game's charmingly rendered world are interested in animal, namely sheep, pigs, cows, and other farmland fauna that populate the levels of this strategy/puzzle game from Scottish development studio Proper Games. We had a chance to try out the game at a Capcom press event held in Las Vegas yesterday and had a good time rounding up farm animals on the aliens' behalf.

It wasn't immediately clear just why the aliens were interested in abducting the farm animals that can be found in the 55 levels that come packed in with this downloadable game (which will be available via Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network next month). Instead, we focused our efforts on the how of getting those animals from their cozy, pastoral homes into the gleaming, circular spacecrafts as quickly as possible.

After landing on a level, your mother ship drops a smaller UFO that you pilot around the level using the analog stick. After a bit of exploring, you'll eventually run into a herd of sheep, but simply moving your UFO close to the sheep will spook them and cause them to run away. Consequently, your goal is to wrangle the sheep toward the ship. It starts off simply enough but, after a few levels, Flock's difficulty ramps up thanks to some clever puzzle design and surprisingly robust physics implementation.

From a design standpoint, the levels quickly morph from relatively flat and straightforward maps to more intricate maze-like layouts, full of hills that you must herd your sheep over, fences that your sheep won't be able to cross, and other obstacles that make your job as a space-age sheep herder more challenging. Eventually, you'll learn specific tricks that can make your job easier; at one point, you'll find out that leading your sheep through water will cause them to temporarily shrink, letting them slide under gates that they might not otherwise be able to get through. The game's physics are impressive as well. On most levels, your UFO will be equipped with a "push" and "pull" energy beam, which you can use to uproot objects such as fences and trees, making it easier to get the animals to the mother ship. Pulling up objects will also uncover hidden items that will add to your overall score for a particular level.

Different animals have different characteristics in Flock. Whereas the sheep are the most tame of the bunch, the game also features cows (which are made of yarn, in keeping with the game's stuffed toys and fabric-centric look and feel) that can be riled up to stampede through fences, as well as chickens that can glide over large gaps when chased, and pigs that scrunch into a ball form and roll around a level. In fact, the most impressive implementation of Flock's physics that we saw was a pinball level, in which the goal was to move a certain number of pigs to the ship. Bumper-like walls set the rolling pig balls bouncing in every direction but the one you needed them to go in, and it was certainly a challenge to get the pigs herded into the ship.

Those pinball bumper walls are also a good indication of the amount of creativity that has gone into the game's level design. You'll find all sorts of special triggers and tiles in the game's levels. One will launch an animal into the air in a specific direction, another can be used to have a male and female animal mate and produce baby animals (perfect for ensuring that you reach the quota of animals demanded by a level). Another one is even covered in poop, for some reason.

You'll be able to unlock and use all of these triggers and more with the game's comprehensive and, by the looks of it, easy-to-use level editor that will let you create and share your very own Flock concoctions. The game will also support multiplayer, though we didn't get a chance to check it out for ourselves. It may not be clear why the aliens are looking to abduct the stuffed animals in Flock but, based on what we've seen of the game, we certainly don't mind helping them out. Flock is scheduled for release in February.

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